Villanova Athletics Unveils Leadership Institute
Chris Whitney helped lead Villanova Football to the 2009 FCS championship
Chris Whitney helped lead Villanova Football to the 2009 FCS championship

Sept. 20, 2012

By Mike Sheridan

Villanova Media Relations

Coaches at every level embrace them.

The sporting public celebrates them.

Young athletes aspire to become them.

And, yet, locating the truly exceptional of their ilk is not nearly as simple as you might think.

Leaders, both genuine and true, are valued because they can be so tough to find.

In part that is owed to the fact that the path to becoming the object of that quest is a winding road. For while it is a lofty honor indeed to be fitted with a captain's "C" by a coach or teammates, it carries with it a responsibility for which there is no owner's manual.

Villanova Athletics this month debuted a working group it hopes can bridge that gap. Dubbed the "Leadership Institute", it is a consortium of coaches, student-athletes and administrators that will focus on the skills and tools needed to aid student-athletes in becoming leaders. The group meets monthly and is open to all of the more than 550 student-athletes at Villanova. To date, 120 of them have committed to the program.

The idea is actually an outgrowth of an earlier version that was originally developed by Director of Athletics Vince Nicastro and Dr. Ray Heitzmann of Villanova's Education and Human Services department. Senior Associate Athletics Director Lynn Tighe and Associate Athletics Director Rev. Rob Hagan, O.S.A. helped implement the concept. Coaches of each of VU's 24 varsity sports were asked to nominate representatives to a contingent that would meet twice a semester, discuss issues and hear from speakers in leadership positions.

"This new model allows us to include more of our student-athletes," says Tighe. "In the earlier model, we were keeping each program to about 12-15 students per session. This is an attempt to include everyone who wants to be included and really grow leadership opportunities for our student-athletes."

The newest incarnation of the Leadership Institute features a committee that includes administrators like Tighe and Hagan, coaches Joanie Milhous (field hockey) and Tom Carlin (men's soccer), and a student athlete, Michael Kania (golf). At least one individual on the committee addressed each of the varsity sports teams, outlining its mission and inviting all interested to join.

The new unit meets monthly for one hour.

"It is going to be student-driven and as interactive as possible," explains Allison Venella, Villanova's Coordinator of Student Services. "We have athletes with us who are moving constantly on the field or on the court so we don't want them sitting back in a chair listening to lectures. There will be speakers, projects and tools that can help them develop their leadership skills."

The response has been strong and across the board, which doesn't shock those who have spent their careers working alongside student-athletes.

"I think student-athletes nowadays are interested in contributing in more ways than just on the field or court," notes Tighe, who was herself a leader as a point guard on the highly successful Wildcat basketball teams of Harry Perretta in the mid-1980s. "This is an opportunity for them to learn about different ways to contribute to their teams and help build skills that will serve them beyond Villanova."

Teaching life-long skills in this important area dovetails with the University's mission that is highlighted by the phrase, "Ignite Change, Go Nova."

"That phrase is proactive - it's calling for action," states Hagan. "The Leadership Institute is looking for people who aren't content with the status quo. This is for people who are looking to improve themselves but also see their role as helping others in the community do better."

There is also a practical short-term benefit while the students compete at the highest levels of college athletics.

"The more leaders you have on a team," says Milhous, who is now in her 18th season as the Villanova field hockey coach, "the better your team is going to be. In all my years of coaching, the years we have the best leaders are the years we are most successful."

"This can be a tremendous asset for our student-athletes," states Carlin. "To pull them out of their environment and give them a chance to be part of what is basically a think tank where they are drawing off other student-athletes is huge. In our case, the one thing we lacked as a soccer program these last couple of years with a young team was leadership. This Institute has the capacity to get our guys thinking about certain ideas that they can bring back to the rest of the guys on the team."

In just the last decade alone there have been countless high-profile examples of Villanova athletes affecting their teammates through actions on and off their chosen field or court.

Trish Juhline was one of a tight-knit contingent of Villanova seniors that also included Katie Davis on a `Cat team that ended Connecticut's unbeaten string and claimed a BIG EAST Championship in 2003 en route to an appearance in the Elite Eight.

Randy Foye morphed from a quiet youngster pining for his hometown of Newark, N.J., as a freshman in 2002 into a senior who helped will his undersized Wildcats to a top seed in the 2006 NCAA Tournament and berth in the Elite Eight.

Chris Whitney's brand of quiet toughness played a huge role in Villanova's 2009 FCS football championship and its return to the FCS semifinals a year later.

Dwayne Anderson's emergence and bond with his childhood friend Dante Cunningham was of no small import in helping the 2009 Villanova men's basketball team reach the NCAA Final Four.

And Sheila Reid's tenacity and example helped Villanova earn back to back NCAA Cross Country titles in 2009 and '10.

Not each of these athletes would have been identifiable as a clear path-setter during their days of freshman orientation. Yet they reached a stage where their teammates looked to them at a point where action was needed, be it in competition or on campus.

"I think one of the skills you need," says Hagan, "is courage. Even if you don't have all of the answers, having the courage to stand up and try is important on its own. You have to be willing to risk possibly becoming unpopular or making a mistake. When I look at current leaders, they are not necessarily people who knew exactly what they were going to do when they became a captain. But they had an interior drive that said, `I should do something.'

"At Villanova, we have so many young people with that internal desire to lead. That's where I think we can come in to help provide them with examples and opportunities to discuss what it's all about."

Hagan works with a host of athletes across the 24 programs. Traveling with the football and men's basketball teams have given him the unique chance to closely observe two of the outstanding leaders in recent Nova Nation history.

"If you took a lot of the experiences that Randy had while he was at Villanova and stacked them together," says Hagan, "you would find the Leadership Institute. He had teachers that cared and challenged him. He had responsibilities outside of the team. He had responsibilities that were given to him on the team that he may not have been ready for, but was asked to stretch toward. People saw in him things that maybe he didn't see immediately in himself.

"To see those seeds get planted, nourish and blossom as they did for Randy is rewarding for all of us. This is a man who not only became an All-American but immediately created a foundation to give back to his community of Newark (N.J.) when he reached the NBA. It's the perfect story."

Hagan also took notice of Whitney's work in this area.

"I think that a lot of times people identify leadership with being out front and leading the cheers," Hagan says. "Chris wasn't a real vocal leader. But he was on time. He practiced even when he was hurt. He would reach out to other teammates one-on-one to see how they were doing. In that way he helped build community within the team and notice things maybe other people didn't notice. I was not at all surprised that that team had the kind of success it did with the leadership he provided."

Whitney's example underscores a basic tenet of leadership - one must be true to his or her self. One of the Institute's priorities is to offer tools that demonstrate how captains or others tasked in such a role can blaze a trail while not acting out of character.

Another benefit the Institute can offer is helping foster a sense of community across the spectrum of programs. Given the hectic pace of their commitment to academics and athletics, precious little time is often available for interaction and communication among the various teams.

"I want there to be a sense of Villanova pride and the only way we are going to do that is by developing the leaders in each of the programs," notes Carlin. "If we can do that, then we can have them pass the message on to their own teams. Not only are you playing for the soccer team or the volleyball team but you are playing for Villanova. It's something special to be a Villanova student-athlete.

"As coaches and administrators, we need to paint the picture of what it means to be a student-athlete here. There are so many life lessons that you learn here that can be highlighted and isolated so the student-athletes can develop their skills. Let's be honest - there are only a small number who will play professionally in their sports. So much of this is about them being successful beyond Villanova."

The response among the student-athletes was more than most of the architects of the program originally envisioned. But it reflects the reality that there is a desire to learn more about the nuances and skills that it takes to do this.

Put simply, the days of leading by example are giving way to a more interactive leadership style and it's one coaches today embrace.

"Leading by example is good," says Carlin, "but it can also be a crutch for players. They use it because they don't take enough accountability and ownership of the program. They see it as, just as long as they are doing the right thing, and playing hard, they are O.K. What they don't get is that when their teammates aren't doing it, on or off the field, they are also accountable. They have to have ownership that it's their responsibility just as much as it is the coaches'.

"Being a real leader sometimes isn't cool. It's hard. It's difficult to have that sophisticated level of communication to be direct with a teammate. But it's such an important ingredient for a team."

The public often sees a captain walking out on the field or the court to shake the hands of officials and greet their counterparts. However, the reality extends far beyond ceremony or cheer-leading. And that's the kind of nitty-gritty dimension that the new version of the Leadership Institute hopes to assist its student-athletes with.

"What I have found in going through these programs now is that I still learn from them, 25 years removed from college," Tighe says. "I always walk out of the room after one of these sessions with a new thought that stays with me. In some respects, that's half the battle - just having an opportunity to give leadership some thought."

Are leaders born or made?

It's a question for the ages or, perhaps, a Philosophy seminar in St. Augustine Hall.

What is more certain is that there exists in all of us the capacity to inspire and influence those in our midst. The new look Leadership Institute aims to offer its athletes valuable insight into just how to make that happen.

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